I am unsure where to begin with this because as a song review, I could get that written in about a paragraph. The style is on trend for tik tok music right now. It has got the overused and cliché vocoder to compensate for a lack of vocal skill. Vocoder, I wish would’ve died with Cher’s biggest hit. It has production that sounds a little Gwen Stefani circa Hollaback. Yeah, I can dance to it… but it’s not my favorite kind of beat, meaning I personally don’t find it catchy. And really all I do is stream and dance to pop music.
But more importantly to the overall music discussion and landscape is it a good song that just happens to be frank in it’s queerness or is it’s queerness the only reason the song is having a major moment. Would a song about hetero sex in hell get the same kind of attention? Probably not. But Cardi B giving Satan a lap dance in a video while par for the Cardi B course is Cardi B. And she always gets the opposition’s plumage mussed up. It’s her brand at this point.
Speaking of giving Satan a lap dance, the bigger part of the song’s success is the accompanying video with the aforementioned lap dance in hell. And frankly in this day an age a music video that actually has something show for itself is kind of staggering. Music videos used to be event television in the glory days of the MTV; Janet, Michael, Madonna, and Eminem. So on that front I must applaud. It is gloriously unabashedly queer, camp, and not at all subtle in the metaphors. It is as openly queer as Rob Halford of Judas Priest singing about a sexcapade in the 70s, in which Halford’s partner has a penis so large he’s afraid it might break his jaw. Hence the song-title, “Jawbreaker”. Also in the video Lil Nas X has a pole dance into hell and other visual bits best left spoiler free… For this generation of queer youth this music video is definitely all the kind of glorious glitter… an artist created a song/video that leaves ZERO question about it’s queerness. And so to have something in the pop culture as a point of reference for queers in the thick of hormones and isolation it is great!
But it also reminds me how much queer history is not being passed down. Lil Nas is not the first to openly express these kinds of things in music or video. Sure, add whatever qualifiers you want to secure the song some, 1st in “insert whatever” trophy. Still, Grace Jones and Prince come immediately to mind as artists pushing the boundaries of sex and gender in a very frank way and both are black and Ms. Jones was openly queer. And even more recently Frank Ocean has been out and making music for the masses.
Were they as direct in their videos or lyrics? That could be debated. But I argue they didn’t have to be, because the talent was so huge in other areas that that at the end of the day they are just amazing artists who happened to be queer. If you remove Lil Nas’ queerness from the music equation what’s left?
Also, if you remove the internet would Lil Nas be as undeniable to the masses as Prince and Ms. Jones were in the 70s/80s/90s. They both had the ability to keep an audience for a 2 plus hour show, no backing tracks. And Prince played every damn instrument on his debut record… and then there was that half-time show in the rain. Yeah I’m jaded by high standards, sorry.
It has been said if Freddie Mercury had come out as gay/bi (he never publicly declared anything) Queen’s success would have suffered. Maybe so. But here in a weird twist Lil Nas being queer IS the selling point/headline. Is that good? Is that bad? And to whom would it be good or bad? I think this is all really irrelevant. He told his story and got our attention and has added some variety to the types of queerness we see in music and that is definitely success on the business end. I haven’t seen anyone this business savvy in music since Madonna in the 80s and early 90s. He knows how to game the streaming market. Short songs mean more streams… multiple versions of your short song mean even more streams.
But the end of day if queer is THE ONLY THING an artist is selling in song or on an album I am not really interested. Also, if queer is the only selling point it can run the risk of reducing our community to tropes and stereotypes. We want to raise up queers artists because they are great artists NOT simply because they are queer.
And it cannot be understated how the internet has been a godsend for many artists queer or otherwise. It has allowed many to circumvent the walls and red tape of much of big business as usual. With the ability to make and distribute music, free of the chains of major label gate keeping we have entered a new frontier in how artists can market themselves and create and sell music. Nobody would’ve been able to release Montero as a video or song to the mainstream in the 00s let alone the “gayties”, a decade that had more out, queer, chart topping music acts than any other.
Side note: In the country music realm several artists have gone gold with albums or songs over the past five years without ANY major label support or promotion. Gold from physical sales! So it isn’t just the pop world that is using the internet to get around the old gates. But Lil Nas isn’t doing sales he’s doing streams. And streams don’t often equal long term staying power with the flighty target demo of 14-25 year old.
But more importantly what of the art of pop music in the long term… if people just start making songs to troll and trigger outrage or push buttons because controversy gets you more streams, what good is that for society as a whole? What good is that to the youth who consume most of this mainstream music? We’ve clearly seen it’s effect over the past ten years with politics, social media, race, income inequality, and science… so do we really want our music leaning into that kind of behavior? What example is this setting for future musicians? Will the major labels just hop on the bandwagon (if they haven’t already) and just churn out the shortest, weakest, laziest music simply to try and create the next viral-streaming-social media blockbuster? Oh wait- I forgot, that is EXACTLY what Bieber’s “Yummy” was, a song made for tik-tok… And I know the music business will squeeze every last nickle from any market queer or straight. So a label backing Lil Nas X means nothing in terms of actual support for the GBTQ in systemic ways. Fact: Every June in SF I see all the big corporate logos turn rainbow colored to show they care about *cough* our dollars *cough* us.
As a teen of the 90s when queer pop & dance music was at an all time camp high I firmly believe there is space for both viral candy and music with more substance in the mainstream. But I am pretty certain the major labels do not think so, it is not worth their money to invest in substance. And so artists who want success in the mainstream have to play the mainstream game. And to that as I said, Lil Nas has proven himself a master.
Oh I apologize… I had suggested I could review the song in one paragraph. Oops.
Well, by the time I get to the end of the 2:17 runtime… I don’t feel a desire to listen again. I’m not fresh out of my teen years and have moved beyond the middle finger posturing vibe that comes with this song. I’ve explored and given voice to my sexuality (older, wiser and all that). So since the production and style doesn’t really catch me and make me dance there isn’t much to make me abuse the repeat button… and I REALLY do hate the overused vocoder. Yeah it’s about owning your sexuality, it is raunchy and it has swearing, it is gay as fuck, and it is as glammed up as a Gaga video. And yes it went to #1 even with all that (thanks to streaming). But at the end of the day I think the song is just fine. Or I should say meh-
As a Music Moment: 10 for the absolute conviction in every pore of this.
I gave the video an 8 instead of a 10 because while it is flashy, funny, queer as all get out and superbly done, I don’t care to see it again. I suppose this is because I already pole danced my way to hell in the 90s and had lap dances with Satan. I don’t really need to watch somebody else do it.